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Happy Christmas (2014)

Happy Christmas

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Joe Swanberg

Starring Anna Kendrick as Jenny

Joe Swanberg as Jeff

Melanie Lynskey as Kelly

Lena Dunham as Carson

Imdb Link

After a bad breakup just before the holidays, Jenny moves in with her brother Jeff and his writer wife, Kelly, but Jenny proves to be a lot more trouble for them than they expected.

Happy Christmas is the latest experimental mumblecore film from director Joe Swanberg, whose claim to fame is not writing scripts, but giving actors situations for their characters and having them improvise, just to see where the film goes. I could not imagine this going well, or providing a very entertaining film to watch, but I was wrong. While Happy Christmas may not be a great film, or even a very good one, it’s still incredibly charming, and definitely worth watching. The filmmaking may not be great, most scenes rely on one awkward camera angle that is completely stationary, because you can’t really get coverage from lots of different angles in an improvised sequence. I understand, but I can’t forgive it entirely. The film is not very well made, and honestly, you see a lot of better stuff on YouTube in terms of production values, but what makes Happy Christmas entertaining is the talent that they have just being themselves here. Anna Kendrick is very gifted at improv, and while she doesn’t make you laugh much in the film, there’s an emotional resonance that she really hits, and it’s hard to believe a lot of the stuff she’s doing isn’t scripted, it seems to good to just be off the top of her head. Lena Dunham is the comedic relief and she steals every scene she’s in, she says all the funniest lines in the movie, really an enjoyable performance, and one that everyone can relate to, because we all have that one friend who acts exactly like her. Happy Christmas is a charming and entertaining little film that does some great stuff. Never thought something like this would be this enjoyable, again, it isn’t a very good movie, but it is definitely a pleasant surprise.

The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by James Marsh

Starring Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking

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Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane’s struggles through Stephen’s diagnosis with ALS, and the love that kept the two of them strong.

The Theory of Everything is kind of exactly what I expected it to be going in, a very average film with above average performances. This is one of those films that takes no risks, which is its ultimate downfall, it is conventional in nearly every sense of the word. James Marsh took the life of Stephen Hawking and made a completely passable biopic, but that’s really the problem, watching The Theory of Everything is like watching a screenwriter transfer this man’s life into a Save the Cat beat sheet, it is formulaic, it feels like we’re watching a movie, and not actually watching someone’s life on screen. It’s designed to please a crowd, to hit all the right emotional notes, to make us smile, to make us possibly even tear up a little, and it succeeds at doing all of this. But it feels so damn uninspired while doing it. Yes, it works, and yes I would say I enjoyed it, but even though I didn’t know the story, it felt like I had seen everything before. With that said, there are two things that make me glad that I went and spent $12 on a ticket, and those two things are Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. These two actors did everything the filmmaking could not do in making me believe. I nearly forgot that these were actors at points, Redmayne and Jones had me immersed, they had me believing. Eddie Redmayne gives a nearly perfect performance as Stephen Hawking, portraying every bit of emotion, every bit of struggle perfectly. I would compare him to Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, although I might actually say that Redmayne is even better here. Felicity Jones also does a spectacular job, although she has a less flashy role, she does marvels with it. As a movie, The Theory of Everything is nothing special, but it would be a shame to miss out on these performances.

Certified Copy (2011)

Certified Copy

★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Starring Juliette Binoche as Elle

William Shimell as James Miller

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A French antique store owner, Elle, who lives in Tuscany, invites an author to spend a day with her.

I don’t get confused by films often, I can usually grasp what’s going on pretty easily, but after watching Certified Copy, I can truly say that I have no clue what the hell just happened. This is a film that I would liken to a plain little box with a lock on it, and a missing key. This is definitely not a good thing. Because a box is never exciting, it’s what is inside that counts, and we never get to figure out what is in there. The story of Certified Copy revolves around two characters, a man and a woman who have never met before going to a remote Italian town together, when all of a sudden a waitress mistakes the two of them as a married couple, and then I guess all of a sudden they’re actually married and haven’t seen each other in forever, or something, or maybe they aren’t and nothing makes sense. There is no way to understand exactly what the connection between the characters is unless you want to make theories about Elle using the author as a “copy” of her actual husband and taking her anger out on him. I’m not a fan of having to come up with farfetched theories to explain the events of a film, especially when the events just felt so uninteresting in the first place. I really enjoyed Abbas Kiarostami’s 2013 film Like Someone in Love, I thought it was a beautiful, slow moving journey through an escort’s daily life, and mentorship. However, his style is definitely… not suitable for every film. He really likes silence, and I’ve heard it said that he hates getting emotional reactions to his films, and cuts scenes that get laughter or any response in early screenings. So in a film that is 95% talking, that is very hard to pull off. It ends up being a lot of uninteresting dialogue that loops over the same themes in order to hit a point in instead of ever treading over any area that will get a reaction from the audience. So no comic relief, no real tension, nothing that makes us truly connect with the characters. Instead, we seem to hear “is a copy ever truly as great as the original” a billion times. Juliette Binoche does a good job, but it’s hard to be really spectacular with the material at hand. There was also some very interesting cinematography, for example, one shot in which we watch a conversation in a car driving through a village, and on one plane we can see the conversation, on another we can see the reflection of the deep blue sky and the buildings on either side of the car, and then finally we can see the people of the village moving around outside the car. The composition of shots like these were simply magnificent. Still, in the end Certified Copy is way too much work with no reward.

The American (2010)

The American

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Anton Corbijn

Starring George Clooney as Jack

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An assassin, whose name may or may not be Jack, is sent to a remote Italian village to lay low from enemies and await further instructions.

The American would be what it would look like if you gave a director like Michael Haneke the Bond franchise with George Clooney in the lead. This is a pretty typical spy thriller script that has a director who took it in a completely different direction. The American is a very slow moving movie, but it doesn’t have a slow moving plot, it’s the style of the filmmaking, the way that every shot takes its time, the actors don’t rush through their movements. This is a spy movie filmed in the style of a European art house piece, which makes it unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I’m not typically an enormous fan of European art-house (I find that like every genre, there’s a lot of great stuff, but then you get the films that miss the point and try and copy the style ending up feeling empty and incredibly pretentious), but I love how it was thrown in as a twist to the spy genre, and it fit the story and location of the film like a glove. So I do really enjoy the film, but as with any film, there are flaws, in this case, the flaws can really weigh it down at moments. The script is where it seems the majority of my problems with the film come from. The plot becomes very stretched out at times, and there isn’t enough conflict throughout the entire film. The fact that an entire section is devoted to Clooney trying to assemble a homemade gun shows that maybe they didn’t have enough story to work with. Furthermore, I think that having a main character who has pretty much zero personality traits other than “mysterious” makes them hard to relate with. Other than that, the director, Anton Corbijn proves with The American that he can take a mediocre script and turn it into something pretty interesting and different. The American is no James Bond movie, it isn’t packed with action or intrigue, but it does have a lot of beautiful shots of the Italian countryside, and a very unique look at an overdone genre.

City Lights (1931)

City Lights

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Charles Chaplin

Starring Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp

Imdb Link

2nd watch

The Little Tramp falls in love with a blind girl, selling flowers on the streets of the city, and pretends to be a rich man to impress her.

I’m incredibly impressed by the Criterion Collection’s blu-ray of City Lights, which makes this film look like it could have been made in the same year as The Artist. The transfer looks incredible, and I think it even helped me appreciate the film even more than I already did. City Lights is everything anyone could wish for in a Chaplin film. It is hilarious, sweet, heartwarming, while also having some very deep, subtle themes about love in it. This is by far my favorite Chaplin film, mainly because it feels to me as though it explores so many different things. City Lights, if broken up, could be four or five great short films, each with a separate gag. What really makes the film special though, is how even though these scenes could all be separate classic short films, they manage to bridge between each other to tell the most beautiful story possible. The variety between the different gags keeps it interesting and fun, and somehow, none of it ever feels like it belongs to a different film, it never becomes disjointed, and every moment goes towards the greater purpose of the piece. In the end, this movie is the most touching Chaplin film, with the reunion that Chaplin has been avoiding, fearing the flower girl will be disgusted by his appearance. In just a few glances, and a smile, we know exactly what is going to happen next in the story. This is silent film done right. We don’t need to be told everything, we don’t need to hear words to know that they’ll end up together, all we need are the faces of these two wonderful actors. Chaplin’s City Lights is a masterpiece of silent cinema, one of the best romantic comedies ever made.

Please Give (2010)

Please Give

★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Starring Catherine Keener as Kate

Rebecca Hall as Rebecca

Oliver Platt as Alex

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Kate and Alex have bought the apartment next door to them, which is inhabited by an elderly woman who just won’t seem to die, the elderly woman’s two granddaughters feel that Kate and Alex are like vultures.

I honestly wasn’t expecting much from Please Give seeing as I hadn’t enjoyed Nicole Holofcener’s previous film, Friends with Money. However, Please Give was a really charming, funny, and wise film. One major problem I had with Friends with Money was that it felt like it was basically a film that’s theme was “it’s hard to be a rich white woman.” I really enjoyed Please Give because it seemed to be making fun of that. Yes, the film centers on the upper class in New York city, but it makes fun of them more than it celebrates them. Here, we see these people as hypocrites, they’re nice people, but Holofcener has actually given them flaws this time. Kate, for example, is very self righteous, and there are a lot of funny moments where she feels she has to give to the less fortunate. She’ll give homeless people twenty dollar bills, while saying things that would really just make them feel bad about themselves. You can really see how Holofcener has written this as a character point where Kate thinks she’s being a good person, when she’s really just trying to prove to everyone else that she’s better than them. You can really see Holofcener’s growth in this film, as she writes actually realistic, developed characters in this film. Please Give is a comedy that never makes you laugh out loud, but it’s one that is always very charming. I don’t think I laughed out loud once, but that’s not a bad thing as I was always amused. Please Give is one of the better films in the slice of upper class New York life genre, a group of films I’ve never cared for much. It doesn’t have much of a plot, and relies on the characters interactions overall. It feels kind of insignificant in the end, like we didn’t really need to be told this story, but it is a pleasant ride.

I Am Love (2010)

I Am Love

★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Starring Tilda Swinton as Emma

Imdb Link

A rich, aristocratic Italian family at the turn of the millennium is disrupted by a new addition to the family, in the form of a new friend.

I Am Love is one of those films that is more interesting than anything else. I can not say that I enjoyed it, or that I found it to be a good film overall, but I can say that it was very interesting in the way that it was directed. The film is full of strong directorial choices, some of these choices work better than others, but I think it’s respectable when a director has an idea and completely goes with it. An example of one of these choices that works really well is the color coordination between costuming and setting. There is a conscious choice to make costumes in each sequence match up with the most important setting of that sequence. For example, Tilda Swinton wears a gray dress at one point while she’s feeling shallow and depressed, it doesn’t match with anything in the sequence until she lies down on her bed, covered in gray sheets, and completely blends in, showing that this is the key part of the sequence. A few more examples are dresses blending into couches establishing a sense of comfort in this environment, or red contrasting with the green of the outdoors, showing that Emma really does not belong there. The costume design was really well thought out, and a very good choice by the director. In contrast though, there were many not so great choices. For example, the flow and pacing of the editing felt extremely off to me. Most shots in the film felt like they cut far too early, or were stretched out a little too long. This gives the film a very uneven, almost jarring tone that takes you out of what should be a beautiful, smooth journey through early 21st century aristocracy. I Am Love was apparently 210 minutes in its first cut. That’s three and a half hours if you can’t do the math. The final cut is one hour and fifty-nine minutes. So the flaws in the pacing could come from cutting an hour and a half from the film. On a final note, I think it goes to show that Tilda Swinton is incredibly committed to her art that she learned both Italian and Russian so that she could be in this film. Even though I didn’t love her performance, I find that fact amazing. I Am Love has a lot going for it, but its flaws hold it back from realizing its full potential.

Horns (2014)

Horns

★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Alexandre Aja

Starring Daniel Radcliffe as Ig Parrish

Imdb Link

Ig Parrish, who has been accused of murdering his girlfriend, wakes up one day with strange horns growing out of his forehead. Horns that have strangely persuasive powers.

I have to say, I enjoyed this movie just as much as I had hoped I would, and it is a lot better than the reviews it is getting lead you to believe. Horns isn’t a new masterpiece of horror or anything, but it doesn’t try to be. It’s a twisted, fun, and oftentimes very creepy horror movie. The director of the film, Alexandre Aja, is actually very talented. Of everything that he’s directed, Horns has the most artistic value for sure, although Piranha 3D’s strongest feature was Aja’s direction. A lot of the directorial choices made in Horns were simply excellent, for example, the first shot, which was a long take, is the perfect way to set up a movie. It sets up the love felt between this couple, and then destroys that all in a minute by showing Daniel Radcliffe lying on a floor alone, passed out with a bottle of vodka. I was really surprised at how well Aja set up the tension without having to use his trademarks of over the top gore and shock horror. 90% of Horns is just suspense, and the suspense is incredibly high. The film is also incredibly funny. There’s a lot of wit here, and a ton of really dark humor involving people confessing their darkest secrets, which get really out there, and really crazy. I couldn’t stop laughing at the entire doctor scene. The script is well written in a sense that it delivers what you want out of a movie like this, some good scares and some weird laughs. However otherwise it can be a bit of a mess. It’s full of cheese, and it jumps back and forth tonally a lot, never getting a perfect mix, and instead just flipping between dramatic and comedic. I also really need to give Daniel Radcliffe a shout out. He disappears into this role, and his American accent is spot on. Not once did I see Harry Potter trying to be American, but I just saw an incredibly talented actor doing an incredibly outstanding job in a genre film. I may not have loved everything about Horns, but it is a fun movie above all else, and I had a great time watching it.

Les Miserables (2012)

Les Miserables

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Tom Hooper

Starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean

Eddie Redmayne as Marius

Anne Hathaway as Fantine

Amanda Seyfried as Cosette

Imdb Link

2nd Watch

Jean Valjean has been in a French prison for the last nineteen years after stealing a loaf of bread. Upon getting parole, Valjean discovers that he can make a difference in the world, and goes on the run. Becoming a mayor, a father, and a guardian angel to all around him.

I’m a huge musical buff, and when it comes to the best musicals ever written, it always comes down to Les Miserables and Book of Mormon. When it comes to songwriting, you don’t get much better than anything in Les Miserables. Think of the talent it would take to come up with any of the beautiful melodies in this musical, and think of having to tell one of the most epic, grand stories ever written using only that music. The fact that Les Miserables exists, and that it works is a miracle in itself. I can’t even imagine how difficult the musical would have been to write. So obviously I’m a huge fan of the original musical production, and when I first saw the movie adaptation, which was probably my most anticipated film of ever, despite the mixed reviews, it was immediately a top five film for me. I haven’t watched it since the day it was released in 2012, and I’ve had it on my shelf pretty much since the Oscars of that year. This week though, I found myself humming “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and decided that I really needed to watch Les Mis again. I can safely say now that putting this movie in my top five was me just being way too excited that this movie turned out good, but after a rewatch, it’s still cemented in my top 100. This is a damn good movie, and actually a good deal of the things that people dislike about this movie are the things that make me feel this is a successful adaptation. I mean, the performances are absolutely top notch. I could argue that this is the best ensemble cast I have ever seen, in any film, ever. Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean is one to go down in history, and while he may not have as pure a voice as any other Valjean I’ve seen, the amount of emotion he puts into his performance takes him above and beyond the rest. Anne Hathaway wrecked me emotionally every time she was on screen, she is just absolutely spell binding. Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, and Samantha Barks all have great turns in their less flashy roles. Hell, I even like Russell Crowe’s stone cold force of nature Javert. A complaint I hear a lot is that “this is a musical, why aren’t these all professional singers?” and that is because the director made a choice to get quality actors who could express their feelings through their eyes and through their voices instead of actors who can make pretty sounds. In a film like Les Miserables, the singing needs to take a back seat to the storytelling. Speaking of which, Tom Hooper’s direction is excellent. I love the extreme close-ups, it’s a really neat stylistic choice that really gets us into the characters’ minds. Instead of blocking a scene of Anne Hathaway pacing and singing “I Dreamed a Dream”, he just puts a camera real close to her face, and lets the magic happen. The closeness gives us a real intimacy with the actors. Personally I love it. The one thing I’m not a huge fan of with Tom Hooper’s direction is some of the blocking. I get that a lot of the sequences are hard to put together, but there are a lot of times where you just know Hooper could have done better. Anyways, you can tell I really love this movie. It may not be in my top five anymore, hell now it’s just in my top five favorite movies of 2012, but this is definitely one of the most successful movie musicals ever made. A whirlwind of great acting, direction, and of course, above all else, beautiful music.

Summer Wars (2010)

Summer Wars

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda

Starring Ryûnosuke Kamiki as Kenji

Imdb Link

A computer programmer, Kenji, works for the world’s largest Internet company, Oz. The most popular girl in his school asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend to appease her grandmother, and Kenji spends a weekend with her crazy family, while Oz is hacked into by a military artificial intelligence.

I’m not a huge fan of anime outside of Studio Ghibli’s work, and don’t often watch it, but I’d been told that Summer Wars is fantastic, so I decided I might as well give it a shot. It really was fantastic. This movie is everything I want out of an animated film. It has great visuals, a heartwarming story, really funny dialogue, and a concept that is absolutely ridiculous. The animation is beautiful, and it looks like so much more than “just another anime”, with some truly brilliant coloring choices (mainly in Oz, where everything is white but the characters, so they stand out in a vibrant way). The story’s human part is really sweet, with characters that suit it perfectly, including one of the most badass grannies I’ve ever seen on film, and a very dynamic protagonist. The parts set inside a computer are completely ridiculous and the premise behind Oz just would not work when you think about it, but what makes it work in Summer Wars is the fact that it makes you believe it would work so fully. Then of course, one thing I was really happy about was the fact that it didn’t take itself seriously at all. One thing I find with a lot of anime I don’t like (COUGHpaprika) is that even though the premise is ridiculous and the visuals are outlandish, it feels the need to be some super serious sci-fi drama. Summer Wars was all about having fun,  you can tell the writers had fun writing it, the actors had fun voicing it, the director had fun creating it, and the audience has a fun time watching it. It’s just one of those movies that is just two hours of pure enjoyment. It’s really a fun, funny, and visually beautiful movie that I recommend to all.